Tag Archives: relationships

The relationship as client

By Laurie Meyers September 22, 2016

Among the most common difficulties that bring couples to counseling are infidelity, financial problems, sex and intimacy issues, parenting challenges and ongoing tensions with the in-laws. Each of these problems has its own unique characteristics, but according to couples counselors, they tend to share a similar root cause — namely, lack of communication. The challenge for couples counselors (and their clients) is to identify how communication went awry — or if it ever truly existed in the first place — and then work to reestablish it.

Couples counseling is fundamentally different from individual counseling, says Paul Peluso, past president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of the American Counseling Association.

“Too often, counselors think that couples counseling is ‘individual counseling times two,’ and they conduct individual counseling with each person, while the other partner observes,” Peluso says. “That really isn’t couples counseling. Instead, with couples counseling, you have not just branding-images_inkhearttwo perspectives in the room that you have to balance, but you have the … relationship that you are working with. In fact, it is the couple’s relationship that technically is your client, not the individuals in the couple.”

Having a relationship as the client instead of an individual makes it much more challenging to build a therapeutic alliance, says Barbara Mahaffey, a licensed professional clinical counselor and ACA member who practices in Chillicothe, Ohio. The relationship is not just an entity, but rather two separate people who have different thresholds for opening up and trusting, she explains. Couples also come in with different goals and expectations. Mahaffey, who specializes in counseling couples and families, says her task as a counselor is not just to address these goals and expectations, but to help the couple discover how they can reconcile their personal expectations and establish new goals that will allow them to move forward as partners.

“Couples will come in and want to fight over who is right and who is wrong in the relationship,” Peluso says. “It is the couples therapist who has to sell the idea that no one is wholly ‘right’ or wholly ‘wrong.’ Paradoxically, neither is to blame and both are to blame — in the technical sense — for the state of the relationship at the same time. Both have played a role in setting up the conditions for the relationship. So the focus is on how each person’s behavior and reactions to [the] other affect the couple’s relationship. If each person wants to be in the relationship, then they have to take responsibility for how their behavior impacts the health of the relationship. And this is very different than individual counseling.”

Confronting infidelity

Unfortunately, the catalyst that most often pushes couples into a counselor’s office is also one of the most difficult issues to move past.

“The single most common issue that brings couples into therapy is infidelity,” says Peluso, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) who has written several books about both infidelity and couples counseling. “Over the last 20 years, researchers have demonstrated that this is the most common presenting concern, and if it is not revealed initially, it is often disclosed in the course of couples therapy. Infidelity can take many forms, from sexual to nonphysical intimacy, and it now includes relationships online.”

“In terms of who cheats, researchers have found that women are just as likely as men to participate in infidelity,” Peluso continues. “As a result, practitioners have to know how to deal with the complex and often devastating issues that accompany infidelity. Unfortunately, when couples counselors are asked about it, they overwhelmingly say that it is the topic they feel least prepared to treat.”

Amber Lange, a licensed professional counselor who owns and practices at Bedford Health, a group practice in Lambertville, Michigan, can attest to the high demand for infidelity counseling. Her practice has become known for specializing in issues surrounding infidelity and betrayal. Initially, the sheer need for counselors knowledgeable about and willing to tackle this particular relationship threat astounded her. “I’ll never be out of a job [as an infidelity specialist],” she says ruefully.

Among couples for whom the act of infidelity is fresh, the nonoffending partner is typically experiencing acute stress and may even have symptoms that resemble posttraumatic stress disorder, Lange says. The offending partner, on the other hand, is typically feeling beaten down because he or she has repeatedly been asked blunt questions that shine a direct light on his or her indiscretions: What did you do? Where? How much money did you spend?

In cases in which the infidelity is years in the past, the core counseling issue more often involves a lingering lack of trust, Lange says. “The nonoffending partner [may have] forgiven the offending partner, but they have never rebuilt trust,” she explains. “So the nonoffending partner is hypervigilant about trust and the [possibility of the] offending partner reoffending.”

If the act of infidelity is recent, Lange helps the couple work through their “why, who, where, how” stage. “I talk about the idea of how you can’t ‘unknow’ something once you know it,” says Lange, a professor of counseling at Capella University. “There’s a lot of knowledge that you can gain that may further traumatize you, such as the sexual positions that your partner was in with someone else.”

Clients may also wonder if their partner did things with another person that the nonoffending partner refused to do. If this information is disclosed, Lange explains, it can lead the nonoffending partner to do things he or she is uncomfortable with in an attempt to please the offending partner.

Instead of attempting to get answers to questions that can further damage the relationship, Lange encourages the nonoffending partner to ask structured questions such as: When did you start having sex? When did you stop? Did you have unprotected sex? These types of questions provide information that the nonoffending partner needs to know, Lange says.

The next phase of Lange’s therapeutic approach involves narrative therapy. As part of this stage, Lange might ask couples who delayed getting therapy after the infidelity to briefly touch on information about the affair as a way to see if there are lingering questions. This process also helps Lange to assess the strength of the couple’s bond.

The story of ‘us’

Regardless of whether the couple is confronting a recent infidelity or the infidelity happened years in the past, constructing the story of their relationship represents the core of the healing process, according to Lange. Couples build the narrative to gain a clearer understanding of how and when the cracks in their relationship developed, she explains. They talk about the beginning of their relationship and explore how they interacted. Were they friends and true partners? What happened that started pulling them apart?

“Life” — deaths, births, work, money and so on — is usually the answer to that second question, Lange says. In addition, people typically change over time, which further alters the nature of the relationship, she notes. All of these factors in combination can make a relationship vulnerable to disruption. Add in misperceptions and unmet expectations, and once tiny relationship fissures can turn into large cracks that cause couples to drift apart.

Among the most common life events that can start to pull some relationships apart is the birth of a child, Lange says. “Before the birth, couples were able to spend all their time and energy and money on each other. After the birth of a child, ideally, you love that child and invest all of that [time, energy and money] in parenting and child rearing — which is not bad, but [couples] come into my office, and they haven’t been on a date in three years.”

In addition to not making time for the romantic relationship, the couple may be trapped in patterns that are actively pulling them apart, Lange says. “You’ve been great parents, but the mother is staying home or working and raising kids at the same time, the father is working and overworking to pay for the mortgage and save for retirement — those kinds of things can hurt a relationship,” she says.

When a couple stops talking to each other, it creates a gap, and it is tempting to fill that gap with other people or activities, Lange notes. Partners may begin to betray each other in different ways, whether it is spending time on social media instead of with each other, watching pornography or working long hours, she says. “In the process, we’ve let the relationship go awry,” Lange observes.

But this risk of unraveling is not exclusive to couples with children. Those who get married or enter into domestic partnerships too quickly upon meeting or when they are very young are also particularly vulnerable, Lange says. For example, those who form romantic relationships in their teens or early 20s are in the midst of experiencing significant personal development. This may not happen at the same rate for both partners, eventually leaving them feeling as if they don’t know each other, Lange explains. Likewise, people who get married or form a domestic partnership in the matter of a few weeks have not typically had enough time to establish a strong base of friendship. Over time, it’s not uncommon for them to realize that they don’t even like each other, Lange says.

Lange asks clients not to make a decision about whether to stay together until after they have gone through the process of identifying what went wrong. Then, if they choose to stay together, Lange helps them start to discuss how to protect the relationship going forward. This typically includes setting aside time to talk with each other more frequently, being intentional about making time for dates and even going on vacations without the kids. But it also involves each partner identifying the behaviors in which he or she engages that play a role in pulling the relationship apart.

For example, Lange recounts something that a client recently shared. “One of the things that I have recognized about myself over the past six months is that I tend to withdraw,” the client told her. “When my partner and I got into an argument, I went away, slept in the kids’ room and wouldn’t talk. I would work 85 hours a week. Even when I wasn’t in the office, I was checking my email.”

In essence, Lange says, the client just wasn’t “there” in the relationship. Other people do the same thing by burying themselves in hobbies such as sports or scrapbooking. As a result, they end up spending more time with friends or with hobbies than they do with their partner and family, Lange says.

The process of building the couple’s story in counseling and finding the cracks and vulnerabilities is a long one. For the first four to six weeks, when a couple is still going through the initial trauma phase of the infidelity, Lange has them come to counseling every week. Once a couple moves on to the storytelling stage, she has them come to counseling only about once per month, in part because she feels that much of the processing and healing needs to take place between sessions as the couple slowly rebuilds the relationship.

“They have to have time to figure out things … how to be in relationship, how to recreate their friendship and how to build [new] good memories,” Lange says. During the process of rebuilding the relationship, trust is also being reestablished and forgiveness is being granted. Then the couple can move forward, she explains.

Ideally, the couple will also identify potential problem areas and reach compromises on how to address those issues. For example: “You say I can’t work 90 hours a week, but we need money, so how are we going to figure that out? … This is [our] story. Here’s the way we go forward. Here’s what we need to do.”

Symptom vs. problem

Brian Canfield, a past president of ACA, also says that infidelity is the event that most commonly brings couples into his office. But he believes infidelity is always indicative of other underlying problems in the marriage or relationship.

“I view an affair not as the problem but as a symptom,” he says. “An affair is like malarial fever. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s not the fever itself that’s going to kill you — it’s the disease.”

Canfield believes that if a counselor addresses the underlying issue first, it will help to stabilize the couple, which will then allow them to deal with the ramifications of the infidelity. “You [the counselor] have to assess if there is a commitment and desire to save the relationship,” says Canfield, an LMFT whose practice has offices in Louisiana, Arkansas and Florida. “Trust and betrayal, that’s not where you put the spotlight. The trust will return once you stabilize the relationship.”

Canfield starts by asking the couple what they want out of the counseling process and their relationship as a whole. “What would you like to see happen? If it is possible to salvage the marriage, would you be willing?” Canfield asks. “A lot of people want to know why [the affair happened], but here is where we are. Where do you want to be? If you were going to redesign marriage, how would it look?”

Canfield says financial difficulties are the most common underlying issue that couples bring into his office. In his experience, there is so much shame surrounding finances that most couples would rather talk about the details of their sex lives than money. He frequently encounters situations with couples in which one partner has been maintaining a hidden bank account or run up the balance on their credit cards without the other partner knowing. He tells couples that part of the counseling process involves full disclosure.

“A lot of couples are in tremendous denial,” Canfield says. “They don’t know how much debt they are in, what their bills are or have a good picture of how much income they are bringing in.”

Sometimes people feel entitled or convince themselves that it’s OK to buy what they want regardless of how it affects their spouse or partner. They tell themselves that they work hard and that they deserve it. Canfield sees part of his role as helping to bring clarity to these situations to encourage better choices.

“The other spouse may say that if this doesn’t change, I will exit the marriage for my own survival. Which circumstances are more important? Keeping the marriage or continuing to spend?” he asks.

Canfield doesn’t try to play the part of financial adviser to couples (although he does recommend that couples seek professional financial advice elsewhere if needed). Instead, he helps couples recognize their need to possess a clear picture of their financial situation and to develop a reasonable budget.

“It’s a matter of priorities and trade-offs,” he says. “The key as a couples counselor is to have the couple work together as a team. Most couples, when they work as a team, can find common ground.”

Canfield emphasizes that as a couples counselor, it’s not up to him to dictate how much a couple will spend on their priorities. Instead, his focus is simply on making sure that they have agreed on a plan going forward.

Once the underlying issues have been addressed, Canfield helps the couple deal with what he calls the “moral disparity” in a relationship in which infidelity has occurred. The nonoffending partner may feel like he or she has the higher moral ground, but to move forward, the couple must try to reach a “mutual amnesty,” Canfield says.

This involves a delicate balance. Canfield tries to make the couple aware that the infidelity occurred because of the underlying problems — to which they both contributed — that were straining the relationship. However, he always makes it clear that it is not the fault of the nonoffending partner that the other partner cheated. Yes, they both contributed to the relationship’s problems, but the offending partner chose to act out by having an affair.

Matters of miscommunication

Mahaffey, an associate professor of human services technology at Ohio University–Chillicothe, finds that relationship difficulties usually involve a significant degree of miscommunication, which is exacerbated by a number of factors. She helps couples understand how communication can get mixed up by explaining the pieces of a “miscommunication model” that she has devised.

Mahaffey starts by asking both partners to list all of the traits they possess that are different from their partner’s traits. She then takes these lists and draws two people facing each other. This represents two people talking, whereas the lists represent their different — and sometimes conflicting — points of view. Mahaffey often also draws a “family rule book” between the two figures. This represents how a person’s family of origin can affect the way he or she interprets interactions with a partner. Mahaffey often asks couples about their family backgrounds and experiences to illustrate the influence of the family of origin.

Mahaffey will then ask both partners to think about all the times they asked for something and didn’t receive what they wanted from their partner. As they voice these details, it’s not unusual for one partner to exclaim, “You never said that!” Typically, the case is not that either partner is lying, Mahaffey says. Rather, it’s that one of the partners has not been phrasing the requests in a way that effectively communicates what he or she needs, Mahaffey explains. She also informs the couple that humans think at about 500 words per minute but cannot speak more than 125 words per minute, meaning there is ample opportunity for the intended message to get lost.

Other complicating factors in communication include different coping styles (such as one member of the couple shutting down verbally or retreating physically or emotionally during times of stress), the fact that women often process information differently than men and the daily anxieties of life, Mahaffey says. For example, it’s hard for a couple to communicate effectively when one or both partners are stressed about finances, work or the car breaking down.

The last part of Mahaffey’s model entails explaining how words themselves — or how people define them — can get in the way. For example, Mahaffey might ask a couple, “What’s the definition of love? Is it that supper is on the table when I come home? Or liking to snuggle? Or texting 60 times a day?”

At this point, Mahaffey has the couple use “I” statements and talk about what needs they feel are being unmet. One partner might say, “I like to have help with housework.” The other partner might note that the request usually comes during a football game or while engaged in something else that he or she enjoys doing. At this point, Mahaffey might ask if the partner would be willing to provide help either before or after the game. This exercise highlights just one example of an area of possible compromise. The larger point is that the couple needs to sit down and talk about what they need from each other and how those needs can be met, Mahaffey says.

Intimate partner violence 

All counselors, but couples counselors in particular, should be looking for signs of intimate partner violence (IPV) among their clients, asserts Ryan Carlson, an ACA member and couples counselor who has done research on screening methods for IPV.

Because IPV is such a prevalent societal problem, all counselors — knowingly or unknowingly — will encounter clients who have experienced or are currently experiencing violence at the hands of their partners, Carlson says. According to data gathered in 2011 and published in 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 4 women and more than 1 in 10 men in the United States have in their lifetime experienced sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner.

Providing counseling in the presence of such interpersonal violence can be dangerous, not just to the victim but also to the counselor, says Carlson, a licensed mental health counselor practicing in Columbia, South Carolina. That is a primary reason it is important for counselors to be alert to the signs of IPV and to have a protocol to follow should a client be a victim.

Perhaps the most beneficial thing counselors can do is to get connected to the people Carlson calls the “real experts” on this issue — those who work at local domestic violence shelters. “Most of what I have learned [about IPV] has come from domestic violence advocates,” he acknowledges.

Not only can these advocates help counselors assess whether it is safe to work with a couple in which IPV is a reality, but they also stand ready to assist clients who are looking for help, says Carlson, an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of South Carolina.

Carlson says he uses the term IPV because it is more inclusive than domestic violence. There is an IPV continuum, and domestic violence is on the extreme end of the spectrum, representing the most severe cases that involve, as Carlson puts it, “power and control,” as opposed to nonlethal violence or verbal abuse. From Carlson’s perspective, it is not safe to try to conduct counseling in those cases involving power and control.

Carlson advises counselors to use a formal screening tool for IPV at intake but says there are other red flags to look for, including a client’s unwillingness to take responsibility for actions. “Control over finances or transportation is [also a] red flag,” he continues. “Is one partner restricting access to cell phones, finances, the car, who the other partner can interact with? … Look for body language. Does one partner consistently look to the other when they answer questions? Is it permission seeking? Is there inconsistency in their answers? For example, as part of a meeting to determine whether or not a couple would want to participate in a research study I was doing, I asked about income. The husband gave me an answer, but when I met with the wife separately, she said the husband wasn’t really working and that she wasn’t allowed to talk about that.”

This one disparity turned out to be an indication of severe domestic violence. Carlson followed his protocol and was able to get help for the victim.

What does a protocol look like? Carlson says he has a formal memorandum of understanding with the local domestic violence shelter saying he can call at certain hours when he has a need for consultation. The memorandum also states that he will not provide identifying information about the client, only basic relevant information. This includes the presenting problem and any context he feels is important. The consultant can then advise him on whether the couple’s case might be a power-and-control situation. In those instances, Carlson must find a way to offer help to the victim without tipping off the partner who is engaging in the abuse.

With all of the couples Carlson counsels, his regular practice is to meet briefly with each individual separately at the beginning of each session. This is primarily so that he can get each partner’s point of view independently on the difficulties the couple is experiencing, but it also provides him with a chance to provide contact information for the domestic violence shelter if circumstances warrant. Carlson and the partner who is the target of the abuse may even call the shelter together.

In some cases, however, the victim of the abuse is not ready to leave the relationship. Carlson say many counselors may have a hard time relating to that. “We think we need to get the person out of the relationship immediately, but [we] need to do it safely,” he cautions

The victim has typically been living under abusive circumstances for years and may not yet have reached a crisis point, Carlson explains. Again, he uses consultation with his domestic violence resources to help him navigate this terrain. Regardless of whether the victim is ready to leave, Carlson says the average counselor should not try to continue providing services in these power-and-control cases. Telling the couple that he feels this particular modality will not work for them has proved to be a successful way of terminating treatment without escalating the problem of abuse, he says.

Lynn Linde, senior director of the ACA Center for Counseling Practice, Policy and Research, adds the caveat that counselors should make sure their states do not require them to report suspected cases of IPV under mandated reporting laws.

There are IPV cases for which Carlson thinks couples counselors are qualified to help. These involve lower lethality or “situational couple violence” (as opposed to one partner begin generally aggressive outside of the relationship as well). In such instances, a couple’s arguments may get out of hand and they may engage in behaviors such as pushing or throwing things at each other. “This can be dangerous, but it’s not as dangerous as choking or using a weapon,” Carlson says. However, he says, it is important for the couple to acknowledge that this behavior is unhealthy and to show a willingness to learn more appropriate ways to interact. It’s also essential that neither partner is afraid of the other, Carlson stresses.

In contrast, partners who engage in power-and-control tactics usually show little or no remorse and may exhibit antisocial-type behavior, Carlson explains. In fact, he says, studies have shown that when engaging in the abuse, these types of offenders typically experience a drop in heart rate rather than an escalating heart rate that is typically associated with anxiety over one’s situation or actions. Carlson also notes that whereas research indicates that men are almost always the perpetrators of power-and-control types of IPV, situational IPV is gender neutral.

None of this information constitutes a foolproof method for deciding whether it is safe for a counselor to work with a couple with a history of IPV. That’s why Carlson continues to do research on screening methods that are better at identifying the presence of violence among couples and where on the spectrum of severity that violence falls.

“Getting it wrong can be very dangerous,” Carlson concludes.

Counseling LGBTQ couples

Although the issues that bring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) couples into counseling are generally the same as those that affect heterosexual couples, the legalization of same-sex marriage has raised some issues unique to LGBTQ relationships, say counselors who work with this population.

“There is a tremendous validation both from the legal system and from society upon their relationships,” says John T. Super, an LMFT who is also a clinical assistant professor of counselor education at the University of Florida. “This validation can provide an emotional confidence or boost surrounding a same-sex relationship that lessens the perceived stigmatization that has occurred. Additionally, since the Supreme Court decision [legalizing same-sex marriage], we have seen a large number of those in long-term relationships choosing to marry and report feeling equality to traditional marriages.”

Although the Supreme Court’s decision is a huge advancement for the LGBTQ community and has given many couples the opportunity for which they have long waited, actually getting married has not been absent of negative consequences for some couples, says Super, a member of ACA. “Clients have explained [that] when they announced their marriage … it was in many ways similar to the coming-out process in that those who are choosing to marry and are in same-sex relationships may face resistance from friends and family as they legalize the relationship,” he explains. “I have heard clients say that their friends and family accepted their relationship, but when they choose to marry, the thought of the same-sex couple entering into a legal marriage is a line the friends or family are not comfortable crossing.”

Counselors have an important role in helping same-sex couples navigate the resistance they may face when they decide to get married, agrees Joy Whitman, a past president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA. Amidst the joy of getting married, there may be feelings of hurt and loss from being rejected all over again by certain individuals or segments of society, she says. Counselors can help couples grieve and process this loss.

According to Whitman, who previously worked as a couples counselor, marriage can also exacerbate a common problem in same-sex relationships: unequal comfort levels with being “out.” Marriage can make the partner who is less “out” feel especially vulnerable, she explains.

Counselors should also be aware that for the first time, LGBTQ couples are facing divorce, Whitman says. Not only is this a new experience, but the need in many cases to stand up in court and disclose intimate relationship details can be particularly disconcerting for clients in same-sex relationships, she says.

Super and Whitman also note that counselors need to be aware of the generation gap among different LGBTQ couples. “Couples who are in their 20s experienced a very different level of social acceptance than couples in their 50s or older,” Super points out. “This generational difference can be important to understand when determining the levels of internalized oppression the individual or couple has experienced.”

Despite these issues and other issues that are specific to the LGBTQ community, Super and Whitman emphasize that couples counseling is couples counseling. Peluso, an associate professor of counselor education at Florida Atlantic University, agrees.

“In many respects, the practice of couples counseling shouldn’t change that much,” he says. “Focusing on the relationship means taking the relationship as it is created by the partners involved. The only judgment that the couples counselor is making is, ‘Is this healthy for you right now?’ and then seeing how the couple can change that. That is fairly universal.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics addressed in this article, see the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association.

 

Books (counseling.org/bookstore)

Podcasts (counseling.org/continuing-education/podcasts)

  • “Love and Sex and Relationships” with Erica Goodstone

Webinars (counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars)

  • “Crazy Love: Dealing With Your Partner’s Problem Personality” with W. Brad Johnson
  • “The Secrets to Surviving Infidelity” with Scott Halzman

VISTAS Online articles (counseling.org/continuing-education/vistas)

  • “Five Counseling Techniques for Increasing Attachment, Intimacy and Sexual Functioning in Couples” by Elisabeth D. Bennett, Jaleh Davari, Jeanette Perales, Annette Perales, Brock Sumner, Gurpreet Gill & Tin Weng Mak
  • “Helping Couples Reconnect: Developing Relational Competencies and Expanding Worldviews Using the Enneagram Personality Typology” by Thelma Duffey & Shane Haberstroh
  • “Loving Kindness Meditation and Couples Therapy: Healing After an Infidelity” by Laura Cunningham & Yuleisy Cardoso
  • “Supporting Same-Sex Couples in the Decision to Start a Family” by Debbie C. Sturm, Erika Metzler Sawin & Anne L. Metz
  • “Working With Intercultural Couples and Families: Exploring Cultural Dissonance to Identify Transformative Opportunities” by Cheryl L. Crippen
  • “Working With Sexual Addictions in Couples Therapy” by Sara L. Wood

Practice Briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Counseling Couples With a Trauma History” by Catherine J. Brack & Greg Brack

ACA Divisions

  • The International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors helps develop healthy family systems through prevention, education and therapy (see iamfconline.org).
  • The Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling seeks to promote greater awareness and understanding of LGBT issues and improve standards and delivery of counseling services provided to LGBT clients and communities (see algbtic.org).

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

The Counseling Connoisseur: Seeking connections to ourselves, others and the sacred

By Cheryl Fisher May 9, 2016

Bonjour! As I sit in this overstuffed chair, sipping my coffee and letting the buttery chocolate croissant melt on my tongue, I quietly observe the bustle of Friday morning in Montreal, where I am attending and presenting at the American Counseling Association’s 2016 annual conference.

I close my eyes and breathe in the café, attending to the local chatter. I am selfishly hoping that by breakfast with croissantssome form of osmosis, my French will vastly improve with the exposure. Although my acquisition of the language may not ensue, the people and culture of this charming and historically rich community endear themselves to me.

Earlier in the day, I embarked on a horse-drawn buggy in exploration of Old Montreal. With the clip-clop of Duke’s hooves against the centuries-old pavement, we passed the enchanting Notre-Dame Basilica, where people lit votive candles, knelt in prayer invoking assistance from the saints and experienced the incandescent light glimmering through the ancient stained glass. We clamored down Saint Laurent Boulevard to Rue Saint-Paul, eventually resting at the Port of Montreal. Passing shops, restaurants, patisseries and cafés, we were offered a majestic medley that tempted the tongue and tantalized the spirit — a banquet where the sensual and the sacred commune. It is precisely in this space of the human spirit that I like to reside personally … and clinically.

Let me introduce myself. I am a connoisseur of life. Not necessarily an expert (though I do freely voice my opinions), but more of a collector. I am a gatherer of moments and memories. I appreciate the complexity of the lived experience. With a researcher’s lens, I seek the wisdom found in everyday experiences and embrace the sacred in humanity.

I am a licensed clinical professional counselor — a keeper of stories that are often tales of pain and suffering. I am a pastoral counselor, trained in the integration of spirituality and psychology. I am a counselor educator, a mentor privileged to co-journey with neophyte helpers. I am a researcher and storyteller, conveying empirical wisdom found in everyday moments.

Every thoughtful thinker, compassionate counselor and intentional teacher becomes a messenger of a message that he or she forever embodies and proclaims. Isn’t that what TED Talks are all about? Thoughts worth spreading!

I believe I have discovered mine. Each component of the message resonates with me as a thinker, a counselor, an educator and, probably of most importance, a human being. My message, inspired by the tremendous contributions of others, is simple: Illuminate the shadow aspects of life while embracing humanity so that one can fully consummate life.

 

Illuminate the shadow

Carl Jung claimed that the less the shadow is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. Therefore, there is a healing and empowering element in recognizing and claiming one’s shadow side.

Silken Laumann, one of the keynote speakers at this year’s ACA Conference and a former world champion in single sculls women’s rowing, was preparing for the 1992 Olympics when a freak accident shredded the muscles and tendons of her right leg. Silken shared her story of perseverance as she beat all odds and not only performed in the Olympics just ten weeks following the accident, but won a bronze medal. She said her most courageous act, however, took place later in life, when she confronted her inner world fraught with depression and anxiety, residuals from her childhood experience of “chaos, unpredictability and abuse.”

“Asking for help takes courage … and it saved my life,” Silken said. She reminded us that to live authentically, we must learn self-compassion. We must learn to embrace our vulnerabilities as well as our strengths.

 

Embrace humanity

The human experience has been the topic of scientists, artists, theologians and philosophers. We have the unique ability to ponder our existence. Yet, we spend a vast amount of time thinking and less time being — being in our bodies, in particular.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book titled Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, suggested that when we put our energy into experiencing our body rather than judging it, then our view of it and ourselves can change drastically. How magnificent our bodies are in their glorious sensuality. We experience our surroundings by employing our finely honed sensory organs that allow us to immerse ourselves in the delights of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.

Kabat-Zinn continued, “We usually tune out these sensations because they are so familiar. When you tune in to them, you are reclaiming your life in that very moment, and your body as well, making yourself more real and more alive. … Your experience is embodied.”

In addition, human beings are driven to find meaning in their circumstances. Research indicates that the ability to make sense of our situation is associated with overall wellness. This quest for meaning construction is born out of the sacred, the creative. Madeleine L’Engle, in her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, suggested that “we write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing. And during the writing of the story or the painting or the composing or singing or playing, we are returned to that open creativity which was ours when we were children.”

 

Consummate your life

Friedrich Nietzsche cautioned avoidance of the “unlived life” when he instructed us to consummate one’s life and to die at the right time. Although not nearly as eloquent, Nike also captured this concept in the slogan “Just Do It!” Seize the day. Live fearlessly. Live in the moment.

We have only moments to live, one following the other seamlessly. Yet we can spend so much time reliving the past or inventing the future that we remain oblivious to the present moment that (in a flash) is gone.

Irvin Yalom, in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, suggested that “the way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth, is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost.”

So, how do we help our clients peer into the hidden crevices of self while learning self-compassion and living life to its fullest? Join me here at CT Online as I examine snapshots from life and explore the existential angst, while also identifying the scientifically based clinical applications to address whatever malady may present. Each month, I will explore the sensual-sacred-science of daily life and offer clinical applications that may benefit not only the client but also (wait for it) … the counselor.

After all, we are people, not pathologies, seeking connection to ourselves, others and the sacred. See you next month! Au revoir!

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is visiting full-time faculty at Loyola University Maryland in the Pastoral Counseling Department. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.

 

Explaining why opposites attract

By Ross Rosenberg April 29, 2015

The most potent of love potions, “romantic chemistry,” draws lovers into a trancelike experience that results in a steamy dance of infatuation, intrigue and sexual desire. Romantic chemistry, or the “urge Opposites_smallto merge,” typically controls our rational mind, so much so that lessons learned and pledges made are neutralized in an instant. Although conscious desires, choices and preferences are crucial to the pairing of a romantic partnership, they play a secondary role to the forces of the unconscious mind. No matter how we try to fight our relational destiny, we still fall prey to our reflexive urges.

The irresistible and hypnotic allure of romantic chemistry creates what I call a “soul mate conviction.” What seems so perfect in the beginning often unfolds into a disappointing, dysfunctional relationship. In my book The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, I explain why, for so many people, the soul mate of their dreams often ends up becoming the cellmate of their nightmares.

Although the human magnet syndrome is an intuitive explanation for the ubiquitous forces that bring partners to and keep them in dysfunctional romantic relationships, it lacked a theoretical foundation. To account for these irresistible and predictable attraction forces, I was compelled to create the continuum of self theory. I believe it explains why all people, not just individuals who are labeled as codependents and narcissists, are predictably drawn to a certain type of partner who is their “opposite” match.

In a nutshell, the continuum of self theory offers an intuitive explanation for why so many people remain in relationships despite feeling lonely, frustrated or resentful. Similarly, it explains why some people tend to repeat their dysfunctional relationship choices despite wanting something different. Additionally, it describes why relationships become fragile and often terminate when one of the partners independently achieves greater emotional or mental health.

The self-orientation concept

The continuum of self theory rests on the self-orientation concept, which represents a distinctly human and universal personality characteristic — we all have one! Self-orientation is defined as the manner in which a person expresses or does not express his or her emotional, psychological and relational needs when in a romantic relationship. There are only two self-orientation types: “other” and “self.”

The “other” self-orientation (OSO) manifests as a natural and reflexive predisposition to be more oriented toward the emotional, personal and relational needs of others than for oneself. On the other hand, the “self” self-orientation (SSO) is the natural and reflexive predisposition to be more oriented toward one’s own emotional, personal and relational needs and desires than those of others.

Both self-orientation types are represented as dichotomous and inverse personality characteristics on the continuum of self. As opposite self-orientations, they land on opposite sides of the continuum of self. The most severe manifestations of both self-orientations are placed at the farthest ends of the continuum.

The most severe form of an OSO is codependency. The most severe form of an SSO is pathological narcissism, which is exhibited in narcissistic, borderline and antisocial personality disorders or an addiction. People are considered codependent or as having a severe OSO when they are hyperfocused on the relational and personal needs of others, while neglecting the same needs for themselves. Conversely, people who are considered pathological narcissists or who have a severe SSO are almost completely focused on their own relational and personal needs, while neglecting the same in others.

The middle of the continuum represents individuals whose self-orientation compels them to equally fulfill their “other” and “self” needs. The continuum of self, therefore, represents the full range of self-orientation possibilities, from healthy to dysfunctional.

Relationship math

The continuum of self is a qualitative construct because it can predict a relationship’s degree of healthiness or dysfunction. It is also a quantitative construct because it demonstrates relational compatibility and stability through the use of interacting numerical values. Through “relationship math,” or simple addition and subtraction of single-digit numbers (the continuum of self values), it is possible to identify relational compatibility and stability. The term stable is used to describe relationships that are enduring and resistant to breakup. Conversely, an unstable relationship is likely to either not progress beyond the initial courtship stage or end when frequent conflict or discord is present.

As a whole, the continuum of self measures the full range of self-orientation pairing possibilities. It is designed to measure only interacting self-orientations; it does not purport to measure any other personality construct.

The continuum of self theory suggests that all people are consciously and unconsciously attracted to romantic partners who have an opposite, but proportionally balanced, self-orientation. It predicts that OSOs and SSOs will be attracted to each other while experiencing feelings of relational compatibility. Like an award-winning dance couple, because the care “needer” (SSO) leads the dance and the care “giver” (OSO) follows, the dance is perfectly coordinated; neither steps on the other’s toes. The resulting bond of opposite yet balanced self-orientations may not be happily connected, but it will likely endure hardships and be resistant to change.

By definition, people who are codependent (severe OSOs) are prone to focus on the love, respect and care of others, while dismissing, devaluing or being afraid of seeking the same from others. Conversely, people who are pathological narcissists (severe SSOs) are disposed to satiating their own love, respect and care needs, while devaluing, ignoring or neglecting those same needs in their romantic partners. As opposite but balanced personality types, they almost always experience immediate and intense feelings of romantic chemistry.

Continuum of self values

In total, there are 11 values on the continuum of self, representing the full range of self-orientation possibilities. Continuum of self values increase or decrease in a series of single digits. (Examples of each continuum of self value can be viewed at http://goo.gl/gT1dMD.)

Because individuals who are codependent and individuals who are pathological narcissists have diametrically opposite self-orientations, they are represented on the farthest ends of the continuum of self (-5 and +5, respectively). As a person’s relational health improves, so does his or her self-orientation, which is represented by a lower positive or negative continuum of self value. The middle value is zero, which represents an equal balance of love, respect and care given and taken in a relationship. The positive or negative designation does not imply that one self-orientation is better than the other but merely that they are on opposite sides.

COS

The farther the values pairing moves away from zero on the continuum of self, the less mutuality and reciprocity are evident in the relationship. In other words, higher negative and positive values pairings (for example, -4 and +4) represent a relationship that lacks a fair distribution of love, respect and care. Conversely, lower pairings on the continuum of self represent an increased mutual exchange of love, respect and care. The former represents a dysfunctional relationship, while the latter represents a healthy relationship.

According to the continuum of self theory, romantic relationships remain viable or endure because the matching opposite self-orientations create a sense of relational equilibrium. If one partner becomes healthier, as evidenced by a shift in his or her lowered continuum of self value, then tacit and direct pressure is placed on the other partner to respond with similar positive movement and growth. If the partner of the healthier individual does not want or is unable to change and grow, then stress is placed on the relationship. The stress will either lead to a breakdown of the relationship or create pressure for the healthier partner to regress to former levels of dysfunction. Failure to maintain a balanced inverse bond may result in the failure of the relationship. It should be noted that family systems theory influenced the conceptualization of the continuum of self theory.

Corresponding zero values do not signify an absence of self-orientation. Instead, they represent an exact balance of love, respect and care being given and received. Although having a zero value would be ideal, in reality, the vast majority of people fall somewhere on one side or the other of the continuum of self.

The lower inversely matched couples are able to ebb and flow because of the reciprocal and mutual nature of their well-matched self-orientations (continuum of self values). They are able to ask for what they need — and even disagree with each other — without experiencing resentment or conflict. However, higher inversely matched couples create a dysfunctional relationship. With polar opposite higher continuum of self values, the two are unlikely to reconcile their vast differences in self-orientation. In particular, the person who is a pathological narcissist is an unlikely candidate for any substantive personality change.

Except in the case of a pathological narcissist, who may have a personality disorder, a person’s self-orientation and continuum of self value are neither fixed nor permanent. A person’s continuum of self value typically rises and falls throughout his or her lifetime. It is even possible, albeit not usual, for a person to move from one side of the continuum to the other. In the case of a switch in self-orientation (from SSO to OSO, for example), the person usually begins with a lower positive or negative continuum of self value. In addition, this person has likely participated in some form of long-term or regular mental health service. With motivation, emotional fortitude and good counseling, most OSOs and SSOs are capable of learning to practice a mutually satisfying level of give-and-take in the areas of love, respect and care.

The zero-sum relationship

Relationship stability is achieved when the negative and positive continuum of self values of each partner equal a zero sum. In other words, zero-sum relationships occur when two partners have an exactly opposite self-orientation.

Note that the zero-sum relationship describes the quantitative state of a relationship, not the qualitative state. To illustrate, a -5 continuum of self value, or someone who is codependent, will likely form a stable and lasting dysfunctional relationship with a +5 value, or someone who is a pathological narcissist. On the contrary, a mildly giving and overly empathetic person with a continuum of self value of -2 would make an ideal partner for a mildly self-centered person with a value of +2. Therefore, a zero-sum relationship isn’t necessarily healthy or stable. It is just balanced.

Consider this vignette of a healthy -2/+2 zero-sum relationship. Sandy (-2) is a mother and wife who enjoys her role as a busy stay-at-home mom. She stays busy caring for her family and serving in several volunteer positions. She is married to Dan (+2), who is a successful corporate executive. With the support of Sandy, Dan works long hours to build his status and reputation in the family business. Although Dan likes the attention that being in the public eye brings him, he still makes himself available for the personal and emotional needs of others, especially when it comes to his family. Sandy and Dan’s lower opposite continuum of self values result in mutual feelings of love, respect and care. When Sandy is sick and can’t care for the children, Dan doesn’t hesitate to take a few days off work to cover her domestic responsibilities. If Dan needs help, Sandy steps up in any way she can to help him.

Now consider this vignette of an unhealthy -5/+5 zero-sum relationship. Ken (-5) works two jobs to care for his wife, Allison (+5), and their three children. Ken harbors deep resentment toward Allison because he has to work multiple jobs to make ends meet for the family. Allison has been largely unresponsive to and, at times, unaware of Ken’s unhappiness. Although Ken is highly bonded to his children, his work schedule keeps him away from many of the quality moments with them. When they got married, Allison unilaterally decided to quit her successful accounting career because she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. Despite Ken’s repeated assertions that they needed two incomes, Allison insisted that she needed to be at home with their kids and that Ken was being unreasonable. Ken’s fear of conflict and fear that Allison might leave him resulted in the suppression of his resentment. Allison’s narcissism prevents her from understanding Ken’s need for mutuality and reciprocity in the relationship. They are likely to stay married but remain miserable (particularly in Ken’s case).

Relationship categories

Continuum of self values are categorized into three groups: healthy/balanced, problematic and unhealthy/dysfunctional. Lower values pairings illustrate healthier relationships that are characterized by higher levels of mutuality in the exchange of love, respect and care. Higher continuum of self values pairings demonstrate less healthy relationships that are characterized by a lopsided exchange of love, respect and care, with more going to the SSO and less to the OSO. Couples who fit into a specific category can move forward or backward on the continuum of self as they either evolve or devolve relationally.

  • Healthy/balanced: 0/0, -1/+1
    and -2/+2
  • Problematic: -3/+3
  • Unhealthy/dysfunctional: -4/+4
    and -5/+5

Unhealthy/dysfunctional relationships

According to the continuum of self theory, individuals who are codependent have a severe OSO, which is numerically represented by a continuum of self value of -5. When in romantic relationships, they focus almost completely on the needs of a pathologically narcissistic partner, while ignoring, diminishing or neglecting their own similar needs. Although unhappy and resentful, they remain in this relationship.

In contrast, pathological narcissists have a severe SSO, which is numerically represented by a continuum of self value of +5. When in a romantic relationship, they predominantly focus on their own needs, while ignoring, diminishing or neglecting their partners’ similar needs. They seem oblivious to their partners’ resentment or unhappiness about the relationship. Therefore, they have no investment or interest in changing the relationship.

The unhealthy/dysfunctional range for relationships is -4/+4 to -5/+5. Although “balanced” and “stable,” these dysfunctional pairings result in one-way “narcicentric” relationships. The +4 and +5 SSOs receive the lion’s share of love, respect and care, while the -4 and -5 OSOs are typically on the short end of the receiving stick. As such, the OSOs suffer in the relationship significantly more than their SSO partners do.

In an effort to avoid upsetting the narcissistic partner, the -4 and -5 OSO partner tolerates and, consequently, adapts to the SSO partner’s narcissistic ways. Because the OSO partner is neither adept at nor comfortable with communicating anger, displeasure or resentment, he or she is likely to suppress these feelings. In addition, the OSO partner may have learned that communicating resentment or anger is likely to result in rejection, conflict or harm (personal or relational), all of which he or she actively avoids. Therefore, the OSO partner perpetuates or enables the dysfunctionally balanced relationship by adjusting to the other partner’s narcissistic behaviors.

The -5/+5 zero-sum relationship is typically resistant to change, mostly because of the pathological narcissist’s inability to acknowledge his or her role in the relationship’s dysfunction. Denying culpability or responsibility for the relationship problems reinforces the narcissist’s position that psychotherapeutic services will be neither personally beneficial nor helpful to the relationship.

The partner who is considered codependent is correspondingly resistant to change because it would potentially result in emotional, psychological or even physical harm or in deep and profound feelings of guilt, shame and loneliness. However, people who are codependent are sometimes able to accept responsibility for their problems and seek help.

Although the -4/+4 relationship also constitutes a dysfunctional relationship, both individuals have some capacity, albeit minimal, to break free of their polarized self-orientation differences. To illustrate, the -4 OSO is minimally capable of setting and maintaining boundaries regarding the love, respect and caring imbalance in the relationship. Likewise, the +4 SSO partner, who does not have a personality disorder, has some limited capability to demonstrate concern and some limited willingness to better meet the partner’s needs. This relationship is still resistant to change because the +4 SSO is negatively reactive and fragile about accepting constructive or critical feedback about his or her narcissism.

Problematic relationships

According to the societal and cultural standards of most developed Western countries, the -3/+3 relationship is often considered problematic because the distribution of love, respect and care is not equally and fairly distributed. In this relationship category, the balance is significantly tilted toward the SSO. Even with the inequity of love, respect and care that is given and received, this couple is still capable of minor to moderate levels of mutuality and reciprocity. For example, the OSO partner is able to set some boundaries and communicate some of his or her needs. Conversely, the SSO partner is capable of minimal to moderate levels of empathy and motivation to meet his or her partner’s needs, while also being open to some constructive and critical feedback.

The delineation between healthy and unhealthy continuum of self values pairings is not always clear. From the vantage point of modern Western culture, a couple with a -3/+3 pairing may be considered unhealthy because of the distinct disparity between the exchange of love, respect and care. However, from the perspective of other societies, cultures or ethnic groups in which the norm is oriented toward an acceptable discrepancy between the giving and taking of love, respect and care, the relationship would be considered healthy and normal. If these romantic partners are satisfied and happy with their relationship and there is no harm perpetrated against the OSO, then their somewhat polarized exchange of love, respect and care may actually constitute a culturally specific healthy relationship.

Healthy/balanced relationships

The healthy values pairings in the continuum of self are -2/+2, -1/+1 and 0/0. Healthy relationships are defined by both a zero-sum balance and an equitable distribution of love, respect and care. Although a -2/+2 couple may not share an exactly equal exchange of love, respect and care, they still experience an affirming, balanced and mutually satisfying connection. This relationship is considered healthy because both partners are content and satisfied with their unique flow. In other words, this relationship works because both partners feel loved, respected and cared for in a manner that satisfies their healthy self-orientation.

An example of such a relationship is a healthy counselor who enjoys helping others but still sets boundaries when feeling ignored, or a healthy writer who lives for affirmation and recognition but can still fulfill his or her partner’s needs for the same.

Maslow’s hammer and nail

As much as the continuum of self theory attempts to identify and quantify human relational behavior, it is neither feasible nor appropriate to rely on just one theory to explain complicated human behavior patterns. There are inherent dangers to having a limited or narrow view of human psychology.

Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychological theory, said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” My hope is that the continuum of self theory can serve as just one of the many tools in a counselor’s toolbox to help understand and change our clients’ or our own dysfunctional relationships.

I would also like to offer some disclaimers. First, because an addiction can mimic pathological narcissism, a significant period of recovery is needed before determining a person’s baseline self-orientation.

The continuum of self only measures a person’s self-orientation. It does not purport to measure more complicated and multifaceted personality or relational characteristics or dynamics. Also, the theory should be applied only in a clinical setting with a competent and qualified counselor who is trained in the continuum of self and other related psychological theories.

Although the continuum of self theory attempts to explain and simplify the complex attraction dynamic, it does not pretend to be bigger and more inclusive than it was designed to be. It is a narrowly focused explanatory paradigm that measures an individual’s self-orientation, while accounting for the attraction dynamic of opposite but compatible personality types. It is not intended to be a stand-alone or comprehensive theoretical explanation. However, it may be useful as an adjunct to other psychological theories.

As a new psychological theory, the continuum of self has not yet met the rigors of scientific scrutiny. However, I hope that it will contribute to the current understanding of human behavior and stimulate further thought and discussion on the topic.

 

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Ross Rosenberg is a licensed clinical professional counselor and professional trainer. He is the author of The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us. Contact him at
info@advancedclinicaltrainers.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Related reading: See Rosenberg’s 2014 Counseling Today article “The dance between codependents and narcissists.”

It’s all about the relationship: Q+A with Richard Balkin and Jeffrey Kottler

By Bethany Bray January 22, 2015

Relationships are the heart of counseling.

No matter how the profession grows and changes, relationships will remain central to the good that counselors do in their clients’ lives. And counselors should never lose sight of that fact, say Jeffrey Kottler and Richard Balkin.

The duo will deliver the Saturday keynote address at the American Counseling Association 2015 Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida, being held March 12-15.

Although they each have a different background and style – Balkin is a researcher and professor at the University of Louisville and the editor of the Journal of Counseling & Development, while Kottler, a prolific author, splits his time between California State University in Fullerton and Nepal, where he founded a nonprofit — they both specialize in relationally based counseling.

Counseling Today caught up with Balkin and Kottler to discuss the importance of relationships in counseling and to get a preview of what they’ll be talking about in their conference keynote.

CTherobox-BalkinKottler

(Left to right) Richard Balkin and Jeffrey Kottler

 

Q+A: Richard Balkin and Jeffrey Kottler

 

You both specialize in relationally based counseling. Talk about how you came to focus on this area. Why does it interest you?

JK: I’ve always found, both as a client and a counselor, as a student and a teacher, as a reader and an author, and as a supervisor and a supervisee, that it was particular kinds of relationships that most inspired and mentored me. Certainly content, theories, research and skills are all crucial pieces of any therapeutic encounter, but at their core is an alliance that has been mutually negotiated in such a way that the work not only is achieved but also maintained over time.

RB: A big part of my research is examining counseling outcomes with adolescents in crisis. I am interested in what is effective with this population. As I have focused on the goals adolescents need to meet in order to work through crises, the question of how counselors can help their clients work to meet their goals is an obvious extension of this research. This is where I believe the relationship between the counselor and client is extremely important. As other mental health professions have focused so much on specific techniques, I believe the counseling profession needs to make a shift from evidence-based techniques to client-centered outcomes. I hope to expand on this concept in the keynote.

 

What’s your favorite thing about the ACA Conference? What are you looking forward to at the 2015 Orlando conference?

JK: Of course it’s all about relationships! As much as I enjoy learning about new ideas and cutting-edge research in programs, I most yearn for ongoing contact with friends and colleagues who I have known for decades and yet only get the chance to see briefly each year. Although I dutifully and systematically study the program guide and book myself to attend topics that interest me, it seems that along the way I almost always run into someone interesting or engaging and I end up learning far more in these informal conversations. A conference to me is primarily about making and sustaining personal connections, and that has always been my priority.

RB: At this point in my career, I really enjoy the service component to the counseling profession and ACA. Many of the projects and groups I work with, such as the editorial board for the Journal of Counseling & Development, ACA’s Council of Editors or the ACA Publications Committee, include counseling professionals I have known for years, and it is a joy to work with so many wonderful people. I think it is great that we can work together to continually move the counseling profession toward service, enrichment and growth.

I always enjoy reconnecting with friends and colleagues. I think so much of how I experience ACA affects me as much on a personal level as a professional level. I enjoy the opportunity to participate in ACA at various levels, such as mentoring my students and introducing them to many of the scholars they have been reading about, or engaging in conversations that stimulate how I communicate and teach about counseling. And, honestly, I am excited about participating in the keynote with Jeffrey. I think it is fun to present on topics that provide passion for what I do and communicate that passion at a broad level.

 

The title of your keynote is “The Power of Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life.” Why do you feel it is important to talk to counselors about this topic? What will counselors learn?

JK: I think there is way too much attention on techniques, interventions and skills without exploring more deeply what empowers them. There has always been a disconnect between what counselors think makes the most difference in their sessions and what clients report was most helpful to them.

RB: As a journal editor, I get inundated with research and concepts across the counseling profession. I think this keynote is an opportunity to bring us back to the core values of counseling and where we excel as professional counselors. I am hoping counselors walk away with an increased sense of appreciation for what we do and how we do it.

 

From your perspective, how can counselors make relationship-building a priority with clients?

JK: In part it is about deep faith in the power of relationships to capitalize on and intensify anything else that we do in sessions. On one level it seems pretty strange that a conversation once each week or so can really make much of a difference. When I try to explain what counseling is all about to indigenous healers around the world, they often laugh hysterically at the absurdity of what we do, believing that talking about problems would [not] do much good without the other sorts of rituals, constructive actions and deep relationship that is so much a part of their work.

RB: At the heart of training in counseling is the core conditions, and I think regardless of one’s theoretical orientation or approach to counseling, focus on demonstrating empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard (is important). However, I often tell my students, “You cannot be an advocate for your clients until you are an advocate for yourself.” So, implementing these concepts in our relationships plays an important role as well.

 

What is new and fresh in this area? What might counselors be overlooking?

JK: What is new and fresh strikes me as familiar from the good ol’ days: a renewed respect for the power of the [therapeutic] alliance to strengthen almost any intervention or evidence-based technique. My own primary interest focuses on how the stories we share with clients, as well as the way we listen and honor our clients’ stories, become the leverage for lasting influence and persuasion. Ask clients, supervisees, students or readers what they remember from a helping encounter, including this interaction, and they will frequently report a particular story, self-disclosure, metaphor or tale that stuck with them. I work a lot with young children in remote regions of Nepal, and when they ask me what it is that I do for my work, I tell them that I’m a storyteller. They nod their heads in complete understanding because that is what elders and healers and helpers do in most parts of the world.

RB: As I look at the current research in this area, I find there are a number of elements a counselor simply may have limited to no influence [on], such as past history, the presence of immediate support and family history. However, one element that counselors can direct is the working alliance, which is perhaps the most essential component of the factors that counselors can influence.

 

Please talk about how you two came to know each other and what made you decide to collaborate on a conference keynote. How do your two different styles as counselors complement each other?

JK: It was a shotgun marriage, arranged according to the deeper wisdom of ACA President Robert Smith, who felt our contrasting styles and interests would lend greater wisdom and breadth of experience to the subject.

RB: Jeffrey is right. It was a shotgun marriage, but one I am honored to be a part of.

 

 

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Jeffrey Kottler and Richard Balkin will deliver the keynote address on Saturday, March 14 at 9 a.m. at the ACA 2015 Conference & Expo in Orlando.

 

Kottler will do a book signing afterward from 10-11 a.m. His most recent books are Stories We’ve Heard, Stories We’ve Told: Life-Changing Narratives in Therapy and Everyday Life and On Being a Master Therapist: Practicing What We Preach.

 

For more information or to register for the ACA Conference in Orlando, visit counseling.org/conference.

 

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About the speakers

Jeffrey Kottler is a professor of counseling at California State University, Fullerton and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is also the founder of Empower Nepali Girls, an organization that develops mentoring and supportive relationships with children at greatest risk of being forced into early marriage or sex slavery. Kottler is the author of more than 80 books, many of them about the power of relationships in helping and healing.

Richard Balkin is a professor and program coordinator for counselor education and supervision and school counseling at the University of Louisville. He is also the editor of ACA’s Journal of Counseling & Development. His primary research interests include counseling outcomes and counseling adolescents as well as cultural differences in counseling. He co-authored The Theory and Practice of Assessment in Counseling with Gerald Juhnke and is a past president of the Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling.

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday

 

The dance between codependents and narcissists

By Ross Rosenberg March 12, 2014

We therapists live for moments when everything “clicks” and our clients arrive at an understanding that had eluded them until that moment. There is nothing more rewarding than when a well-placed analogy or metaphor creates the breakthrough moment. When spot-on, the resulting “lightbulb” reaction or “aha” moment is priceless.

dancersOf all of the metaphors I use in psychotherapy, the “dance” has been the most provocative and powerfully impactful with my clients who are codependent. It has helped them understand their predilection for choosing “dance partners” who are ultimately controlling and harmful. It has also assisted them in coming to terms with their seemingly magnetic attraction to narcissistic romantic partners. Over time, the dance metaphor developed into one of my favorite psychotherapeutic techniques because it helped to facilitate perception of rigid thought patterns, break down systems of denial and enable emotional and intellectual understanding of dysfunctional relationship dynamics.

The dance metaphor works because it almost perfectly aligns with what we know about real dancing partnerships. For example, compatible dancers are well matched in their approach or roles: one always needs to be the leader and the other the follower. The leader always navigates the dance with precision, and the follower acquiesces seamlessly. These two choose songs to dance to that they know completely and intuitively. They are exquisitely attuned to the other’s dancing style, moves and idiosyncrasies. To an onlooker, it appears that they dance with ESP, each knowing and predicting the other’s moves before they happen.

Individuals who are codependent “dance” so well with individuals who are narcissists because their pathological personalities or “dance styles” are complementary. In other words, they are perfectly matched partners. Their well-matched dance preferences bond them together in a resilient and lasting partnership, even if one or both partners are unhappy, resentful or angry. As well-matched dancers, they perform magnificently on the dance floor because they instinctively expect each other’s moves. They dance effortlessly with each other, as if they have always danced together. Each knows his or her role and sticks to it. But it is dysfunctional compatibility that is the driving force behind this dynamic dancing duo.

As perfectly compatible dancing partners, the narcissist dancer is the “yin” to the codependent’s “yang.” The giving, sacrificial and passive nature of the person who is codependent matches up perfectly with the entitled, demanding and self-centered traits of the individual who is narcissistic. Like human magnets, codependents and narcissists continue their rocky and seemingly unstable relationship because of their opposite dance roles or, as I refer to them, their “magnetic roles.” The lasting bond created by these perfectly matched human magnets or dysfunctional dancers is interminably powerful, binding them together despite myriad consequences or shared unhappiness. Although their rollercoaster relationship provokes more anxiety and disconnect than happiness, both seem compelled to continue the dance.

These perfectly matched dancers always seem to nail their dance routines, which is to be expected because they have been practicing their passive and predictive dance moves their whole adult lives. The dancing skills of someone who is codependent are distinctly connected to the person’s reflexive dysfunctional agility — the ability to be attuned to the cues, gestures and self-serving movements of their narcissist partners. In almost every facet of their life, individuals who are codependent pride themselves on knowing what people want and need, almost before their friends, family members or partners know it themselves. Hence, the codependent person is adept at anticipating his or her narcissist partner’s moves, while still experiencing the dance as a positive experience.

Conversely, “dancers” who are narcissistic are drawn to codependent partners because they are allowed to feel dominant, secure and in control in an activity that brings them much attention, praise and appreciation. They habitually choose or fall in love with codependent dance partners because they are given open and tacit permission to be the center of focus, lead the direction of the dance and, ultimately, determine where, when and how the dance will proceed. In other words, the narcissist’s grandiosity, entitlement and need to be in control are not only allowed by his or her codependent partner, but also paradoxically make the partner feel safe and secure in the dance.

The dance metaphor has been instrumental to my work with codependent clientele because it helped them understand their persistent dysfunctional attraction pattern to hurtful and selfish narcissistic romantic partners. It also helped them in breaking their perpetual and reflexive patterns of choosing dance partners who initially felt perfect but eventually revealed themselves to be so wrong — even harmful — for them. As a relative who sadly is a narcissist once told me when explaining the nature of relationships: “The soul mate of your dreams is gonna become the cellmate of your nightmares.”

Therapy that utilizes my dance metaphor consistently provokes a deeper understanding of dysfunctional relationship patterns.  Over time, my clients have developed the confidence, insight and feelings of personal efficacy and power to break free from their dysfunctional relationship patterns. Released from their propensity to fall in love with narcissists, these “recovering” codependents are finally able to fall reflexively, if not magnetically, into the arms of a loving, desirable and emotionally healthy dance partner.

In 2007, following an inspiring breakthrough therapy session with one of my clients, I decided to consolidate all of my ideas about the codependent/narcissist dance phenomenon into an essay titled “Codependency, Don’t Dance.” The essay flowed from me with ease because I had been contemplating and talking about these concepts for more than five years. I would later realize that the ideas had been marinating in my mind ever since I made the promise to myself that I would put an end to my own penchant for dating, falling in love with and marrying narcissistic women. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t figured out how to change my own dysfunctional dance pattern, the dance “light bulb” never would have appeared above my head.

The essay was an immediate hit with my codependent clients because it seemed to galvanize their understanding of their own dysfunctional and self-defeating relationship choices. It represented my own truism about the psychotherapy process: You can’t change a long-standing dysfunctional pattern until you first understand what it is and where it comes from; the deeper the understanding of the internal processes, the more apt the therapy experience is to yield positive results.

Since writing this essay, it has become the most requested piece of my written work and is also included in my book, The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us. I’m honored and grateful that the essay has helped thousands of people to analyze and, ultimately, understand their seemingly mysterious and habitual relationship patterns with narcissists. What follows is an excerpt of the essay:

 

When a codependent and narcissist come together in their relationship, their dance unfolds flawlessly: The narcissistic partner maintains the lead and the codependent follows. Their roles seem natural to them because they have actually been practicing them their whole lives; the codependent reflexively gives up their power and since the narcissist thrives on control and power, the dance is perfectly coordinated. No one gets their toes stepped on.

Typically, codependents give of themselves much more than their partners give back to them. As “generous” but bitter dance partners, they seem to be stuck on the dance floor, always waiting for the “next song,” at which time they naively hope that their narcissistic partner will finally understand their needs. Codependents confuse caretaking and sacrifice with loyalty and love. Although they are proud of their unwavering dedication to the person they love, they end up feeling unappreciated and used. Codependents yearn to be loved, but because of their choice of dance partner, find their dreams unrealized. With the heartbreak of unfulfilled dreams, codependents silently and bitterly swallow their unhappiness.

Codependents are essentially stuck in a pattern of giving and sacrificing, without the possibility of ever receiving the same from their partner. They pretend to enjoy the dance, but really harbor feelings of anger, bitterness and sadness for not taking an active role in their dance experience. They are convinced that they will never find a dance partner who will love them for who they are, as opposed to what they can do for them. Their low self-esteem and pessimism manifests itself into a form of learned helplessness that ultimately keeps them on the dance floor with their narcissistic partner.

The narcissist dancer, like the codependent, is attracted to a partner who feels perfect to them: Someone who lets them lead the dance while making them feel powerful, competent and appreciated. In other words, the narcissist feels most comfortable with a dancing companion who matches up with their self-absorbed and boldly selfish dance style. Narcissist dancers are able to maintain the direction of the dance because they always find partners who lack self-worth, confidence and who have low self-esteem — codependents. With such a well-matched companion, they are able to control both the dancer and the dance.

Although all codependent dancers desire harmony and balance, they consistently sabotage themselves by choosing a partner who they are initially attracted to, but will ultimately resent. When given a chance to stop dancing with their narcissistic partner and comfortably sit the dance out until someone healthy comes along, they typically choose to continue their dysfunctional dance. They dare not leave their narcissistic dance partner because their lack of self-esteem and self-respect makes them feel like they can do no better. Being alone is the equivalent of feeling lonely, and loneliness is too painful to bear.

Although codependents dream of dancing with an unconditionally loving and affirming partner, they submit to their dysfunctional destiny. Until they decide to heal the psychological wounds that ultimately compel them to dance with their narcissistic dance partners, they will be destined to maintain the steady beat and rhythm of their dysfunctional dance.

Through psychotherapy, and perhaps a 12-step recovery program, the codependent can begin to recognize that their dream to dance the grand dance of love, reciprocity and mutuality is indeed possible. Through therapy and a change of lifestyle, codependents can build (repair) their tattered self-esteem. The journey of healing and transformation will bring them feelings of personal power and efficacy that will foster a desire to finally dance with someone who is willing and capable of sharing the lead, communicating their movements and pursuing a mutual loving rhythmic dance.

In conclusion, it is my belief that all codependents, if motivated and committed to a healing and engaging psychotherapy process, are able to stop their insanity-inducing dance with narcissists. Through a nonwavering belief in one’s self-worth and commitment to the ideal of healthy and resilient love, we all can finally experience personal and relational joy. The quote that best captures my philosophy of the codependency recovery process comes from George Eliot:  “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Or, as I might say it, “It is never too late to dance with the partner of your dreams.”

 

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Ross Rosenberg is a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified alcohol and other drug abuse counselor and national seminar trainer. He is the owner of Clinical Care Consultants and co-owner of Advanced Clinical Trainers and the author of The Human Magnet Syndrome.